Junior Seau, Sports Illustrated & Playing Thru Pain

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Photo by Jim Larrison via Flickr
Photo by Jim Larrison via Flickr

If you follow football (or the national news), you probably know that former NFL great Junior Seau committed suicide at the age of 43.

News reports speculate that repeated brain trauma, the result of years in football, may have contributed to his self-inflicted death. As a healthcare writer and nurse, I find that possibility intriguing, and am glad that Seau’s family has donated his brain for research. If repeated head injuries are indeed causing long-term, life-affecting damage to football players, it’s time to rethink the American approach to football.

But at least one Sports Illustrated writer suspects head injuries may not completely and totally explain former football players’ higher rates of depression, or Seau’s suicide. In the May 14, 2012  issue of SI, Peter King writes:

I’ve been wondering about our part in all of this. The media’s part, the hero-creating part, the Seau-as-superhero part. Did we lionize Seau for his toughness to the point where it was impossible for him to even consider asking for help?

It’s a poignant, and important, question.

Seau was revered, in part, for his ability to play through pain. Article after article, including some penned by King, played up  and celebrated that tendency. But in hindsight, King wonders if that wasn’t a mistake:

…when you don’t acknowledge pain in your professional life for years and years, how will ever acknowledge pain when the cheering stops?…for that reason, I know I’ll be a lot more careful about praising men as heroes for playing with injuries they shouldn’t be playing with.


Our culture praises boys and men who solider on, in spite of their pain. It’s part of the Boy Code. Boys are expected to push down their pain and keep going, no matter what. Those who do — like Seau — are lauded and honored. Those who ‘fess up to their pain, who admit that they can’t go on anymore or that they need a break, as labeled as whiners and viewed as weak.

Think about the message that sends to our sons!

That’s part of what Kate Stone Lombardi wrote about in her book, The Mama’s Boy Myth. Mamas, she argues, are particularly well-placed to expand their sons’ definitions of masculinity, to let them know that it’s not weakness to express pain.

It’s a message our boys need to hear. Clearly, most of them won’t grow up to be NFL players. Most won’t ever have to deal with the physical ramifications and lingering pain that result from a life of football. But all of our boys, at some point in time, will experience physical or psychological pain, and our sons need to know it’s OK to admit it, and to get help. The consequences of not doing so are stark. Consider:

  • Men are much less likely than women to visit a doctor.  Studies indicate that men often delay seeking medical care. As a result, their symptoms are usually more pronounced when they finally seek care — and their diseases more advanced. “Macho” men are half as likely as other men to pursue recommended medical care.
  • Men are less likely to see help for depression. Women are much more likely than men to be diagnosed with depression, but that doesn’t mean that women are more likely to be clinically depressed than men. Rather, many researchers suspect that men fail to seek help for depression, and instead turn to alcohol, drugs or other unhealthy behaviors. Is it any surprise, then, that the male suicide rate is 4 times that of women?

Think about those statistics the next time you’re tempted to tell your son to “stop crying.” Or the next time you’re tempted to tell your son to “shake it off and get back in the game.” Think of those statistics the next time an NFL announcer goes on and on about a player who’s playing through pain. Think about those messages, and have some honest conversations with your sons.

But don’t stop there. Show your sons, through your words and your deeds, that it’s OK to seek help.
Better than OK, in fact. Let him know that admitting, confronting and seeking help for a problem is the manly thing to do.

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